Friday, October 29, 2010

Boy reconstructed: 'Ariche' the Carthaginian

After ‘Myrtis’, the Athenian girl, we now have ‘Ariche’, the Carthaginian man. Ariche is the product of a co-operation between France and Tunisia following on from the excavation of the site of the cemetery of Byrsa, in ancient Carthage, by a joint team.
(© AFP/File - Fethi Belaid)
In 1994 the necropolis of Byrsa was discovered by chance on the southern flank of Bursa hill when a man planting trees fell into a grave. In ancient times Byrsa was the walled citadel above the harbour of ancient Carthage and was also the name of the hill itself. The word is derived from the Phoenician word for citadel and the area was the major military installation of the city of Carthage. Byrsa was besieged by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus ‘Africanus’ in the Third Punic War and eventually destroyed by Rome in146 BC.

Under the direction of Jean-Paul Morel and his team the excavation brought to light from a depth of five metres below the modern surface the skeleton of a young man aged between 19 and 24 years old. The skeleton (below right) was more than 2,500 years old, thus the young man died sometime in the 6th century BC.

Nat. Museum Carthage
 The Tunisian Ministry of Culture allowed the transfer of the young man’s remains to France for scientific examination and reconstruction, and Elisabeth Daynès, a sculptor who specialises in hyper-realistic reconstructions was commissioned to restore the young man to a semblance of his living self. Daynès is an expert in dermoplastic reconstruction, a scientific technique that enables the restoration of the features of an individual with 95 percent accuracy. Some aspects of these reconstructions remain partially subjective however, such as the colour of the eyes and the hair.

An anthropological study of the skeleton showed that the man had a pretty robust physique and was 1.7 metres (five feet six inches) tall. The cause of his death is not known. He was buried with gems, scarabs, amulets and other items, and therefore may have belonged to the Carthaginian elite.

The young man, whose actual name is not known, was given the name Ariche, meaning ‘the desired man’ by Minister of Culture Abderraouf Basti, and was repatriated to Tunisia on September 24 to appear in an exhibition at Byrsa alongside the objects found in his tomb.

Ariche is dressed in a white linen tunic, sandals in the ancient Carthaginian style, and a pendant and beads like those found with his skeleton. He will be on show at Byrsa until the end of March 2011 when he will travel to Lebanon, the land of the Phoenicians who founded Carthage, for an exhibition at the American University of Beirut. In the meantime, he is proving a popular attraction for Tunisians, providing them with a visible link to their Carthaginian roots.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Royal tomb discovered in Daskyleion, Turkey?

The current round of excavations at the ancient town of Daskyleion (or Dascylium) are in their 22nd season, and this persistence has been amply rewarded by the recent amazing discovery of a stone built tomb under a tumulus. Dr. K İren, of Mugla University and director of the excavation, has announced that two tumuli have been excavated and one appears to have the hallmarks of a ‘royal burial’.
The ancient city of Daskyleion, situated to the southeast of Lake Dascylitis on the bank of a river, was rediscovered in 1952. Preliminary excavations took place from1954-1960 and have continued since 1988. Excavations have shown that the town was settled by the Bronze Age, a good fit with the history of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who mentions the settlement at the time of the Trojan War. Strabo, on the other hand, says that it was settled by Aeolian colonists after that war (13.1.3).

According to legend the town is named after Dascylus, father of King Gyges, famous from Herodotus’ history. When the Persians took over the Lydian Empire Daskyleion became the seat of the Persian satrapy of Hellespontine Phrygia and the residence of the Pharnacid dynasty. Although sections of the terrace walls of the acropolis have been found, the most important archaeological finds to date have been several fifth-century reliefs, showing Magi performing sacrifices and stele, one with an Aramaic inscription. Persian suzerainty came to an end with the capture of the town by Parmenion, general of Alexander the Great, after the battle of the River Granicus in 334.

So the discovery of a ‘royal tomb’, thought to date from around 2,500 years ago is of great interest, since we know that the site was the seat of the famous Pharnacid dynasty. The entrance to the tomb was found in the side of the tumulus which faced the town. The tomb consists of an antechamber in front of a burial chamber containing two skeletons. Speculation of the ‘royal’ nature of the occupants lies not only in the grandiose nature of the tomb (the marble door to the tomb was approximately 9.5 meters into the tumulus) but also in the fact that the bodies were wrapped in purple. The marble ‘couch’ on which the skeletons lie is stained purple – the colour traditionally worn by Persian and other royalty.

Other finds include the remains of carved wooden furniture, ceramic perfume bottles, glass and silver jewellery and gold coins. The archaeologists intend to carry out DNA analysis of the skeletons and there is the possibility that they will be subjects for facial reconstruction.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Exciting new finds from a Macedonian necropolis

It’s the time of year when archaeologists announce the most important finds of the season, and it has been another extremely productive season for Greek archaeologists working on the necropolis near on the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella.
More than 1,000 tombs have been discovered at the necropolis since excavations began in 2000, and yet it is estimated that only 5% of the site has so far been excavated. This season has seen the discovery of 37 ancient tombs dating back to the iron age and down to the Hellenistic period.
The tombs are incredibly rich in finds, reflecting the wealth of Macedonia over several centuries. As in previous seasons, there is consistent placement of iron swords, spears and daggers, plus vases, pottery and jewellery made of gold, silver and iron in the tombs, allowing the dead to have access to their precious belongings in the afterlife. Macedonia was (and is) an area of Greece rich in minerals, with access to various gold and silver mines, and therefore there is an abundance of gold grave goods from the 6th century onwards.
Further information on the grave goods excavated in this and recent seasons is needed before conclusions can be drawn, but it is looking increasingly that the excavations outside Pella will prove that the Macedon kingdom advanced towards the Axios River region much earlier than previously anticipated. Many scholars had proposed that this area did not come under the Argead dynasty of Macedon (the dynasty that will later produce Philip II and Alexander the Great) until after the Persian Wars, but the consistency of the type of grave goods and the form of burial seem to suggest that the accession of the area should be pushed back into the 6th century BC.
The discoveries at the site included the bronze helmet with gold mouthplate, shown here, from a tomb of a warrior from the 6th century BC which also included the warriors weapons and jewellery.
 The gold mouthplate is particularly fine. A visit to museums in Macedonia will show the prevalence of the use of such mouthplates or ‘lozenges’.  The use of them, and on occasion more full gold masks (such as at Sindos) has drawn parallels with the Mycenaeans, in line with the fact that there are many other aspects of Macedonian life and funeral practice that have parallels with Mycenaean culture. But there are other theories about the mouthplates too. The most obvious is that they are to be connected with the coin that was placed in the mouth in order to pay Charon, the ferryman whose job it was to guide souls across the river Styx.
Another intriguing theory has arisen via a remark by an author who, in the 12th century, was detailing heresies of early Christian sects and remarked that one of the accusations of heresy against the Phrygian Christian movement known as the Montanists was that they sealed the mouths of their dead with plates of gold like initiates into the mysteries. This is very interesting, since we know that Macedonia was a region of Greece that wholeheartedly embraced various mystery cults to an extent that some southern Greeks viewed as suspicious. Orphic texts were discovered in the famous Derveni burials, and legend has it that Philip II met his wife Olympias, future mother of Alexander, whilst they were celebrating the mysteries on Samothrace.  The important point here, of course, is that initiates were not allowed to divulge anything about the mysteries to those who had not been initiated. Perhaps the gold lozenge is there to stop them from doing so, even in death? It is to be hoped that further research will enable us to understand whether there is a link between the use of the gold lozenges and particular cult.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Girl Reconstructed: 'Myrtis', a victim of the plague and the Peloponnesian War

The long and drawn-out struggle between Athens and Spartan known as the Peloponnesian War has always fascinated me. Chronicled by Thucydides, who himself played a part in the conflict, the war represented a bitter struggle between a sea-power and land-power and their respective allies which proved catastrophic for the eventual losers, the citizens of Athens.

The war lasted from 431 to 404BC and ranged across the Greek city states of the mainland, islands and even Sicily. Thucydides’ unfinished account is detailed and impressive and still causes controversy over its veracity, particularly of the speeches he reports. Fortunately for us, archaeology continues to throw light on this period and sometimes we get a neat fit between text and the archaeological record. My group and I recently stood at the well preserved bridge of Amphipolis whilst I read Thucydides’ account of the Spartan general Brasidas’s relief of the town in 424 and his entry via that very structure.

Earlier in his account of the war Thucydides had given us a very chilling account of the plague that had struck Athens in 430BC. In Book II Chapter 7 we hear that many Athenians had fled inside the city walls from the countryside when the Spartans invaded Attica, and that then plague broke out inside city. He describes the horror of the outbreak and the symptoms of the illness, and also how normal burial procedures could not be adhered to in the face of so much contagion:
“All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.”

Therefore when Greek archaeologists discovered a mass grave near the ancient Athenian cemetery of Keramikos whilst the new Athens subway was being built in 1995, the question was raised as to whether this could have been connected with the plague of 430BC. The grave contained the bones of 150 men, women and children.

Scholars had long suspected, based on Thucydides account and of what they knew of conditions in the city in the late 5th century, that the plague was actually typhoid fever, and the well-preserved remains in the grave meant that scientists had the opportunity to test DNA from the teeth of some of the skulls in the grave so that they could identify the cause of death. Professor Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens undertook this study in 2006 and it was indeed found to be typhoid fever that had killed the occupants.

Since some of the skeletons were exceptionally well-preserved it was decided that facial reconstruction would be possible. Professor Papagrigorakis and his team chose three subjects, one of whom was an 11 year old girl. The girl was not one of those who had contributed DNA - the team had not wanted to damage her intact teeth.

Facial reconstruction is an interesting and controversial part of archaeology. As a science to reconstruct the face of a particular individual it really started with the work of Wilhelm His (1831-1904) in the 19th century and then was taken forward by the Russian palaeontologist Mikhail Gerasimov in the 20th century. However, it was really the ‘Manchester’ team, led by Richard Neave in the later 20th century that saw the subject advance as an essential tool in forensic science and archaeology.

Using a 3-D technological program called the ‘Manchester method’ for the reconstruction process, Papagrigorakis and his team worked with the girl’s complete skull, jaw, teeth and milk teeth and believes that the results are 95 percent close to reality. The underlying tenet of facial reconstruction is that the skull forms the armature for the facial flesh and therefore dictates its form. This is supplemented by information collected from data on such things as the varying fleshiness due to age, gender, ethnic origin etc.

It was the job of Greek archaeologist Efi Baziotopoulou, who excavated the Keramikos site, to contribute information to suggest the colour of the girl’s hair and eyes, and she even provided her with a name: Myrtis. Her hair has been styled in a manner familiar from classical vase paintings and reliefs, and her dress based on the tunics of the times.

Myrtis is now the subject of an exhibition "Face to Face with the Past", and because of her death from typhoid fever Myrtis has even been made a representative of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to raise awareness of child health issues. The exhibition has proved very popular in Greece, though it has to be said that facial reconstructions are still an issue of controversy. As Musgrave, a member of the Manchester team, has pointed out there are archaeologists and museum curators who are increasingly concerned at the ethics of working with human remains, and some people find these types of reconstructions distasteful. He believes that it is not offensive to the dead if the reconstruction reveals their stories or historical or scientific truths. It is clear that this new study from Keramikos will add to knowledge of the population of Athens at this time and how they suffered during the war, though it could be argued that there is little to be added by the physical reconstruction of this unfortunate child’s features.

It is not known how many Athenians were killed by the plague during the Peloponnesian War – some scholars put the loss as high as a quarter of the population. What is known though, is that it killed their famous statesman: Pericles, one of the architects of the war. The loss of their most able general at such an early stage in the war was a real disaster for Athens. And of course, as Thucydides pointed out – the plague did not touch Sparta or its allies, so it is interesting to speculate on just how much it did affect the early stages of the war.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Classical Greek hydria found in Nessebar, Bulgaria

Bulgarian archaeologists have made an exciting find during their excavations n the Necropolis of Mesambria in the Black Sea city of Nessebar.  A small stone built tomb was opened to reveal a bronze hydria dating back to 4th century BC.

Mesambria (sometimes spelt Messembria) was a Greek colony of around 510 B.C. on the site of an older Thracian settlement. The Black Sea was an important area to the southern Greeks as it gave access to corn producing lands and also mineral rich areas. Mesambria remained a Greek city until annexed by Rome in 72AD.
The hydria is the first find of its kind from the excavations at the necropolis and will doubtless lead to speculation of the status of the person whose remains lie within it.
The hydria was, as its name suggests, a vessel for water, but hydria often have a secondary purpose as a funerary urn. The cremated bones of the dead would be placed within the hydria, and then buried within the tomb.
The hydria from Mesambria is well-preserved with three decorated handles and was once also decorated with applied metal figures. Luckily the metal figures, though they had become detached from the body of the vessel were also discovered in the tomb. The figures are of a winged male and female, a common motif on hydria – see the example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, below. Also found within the tomb was a strigil, suggesting that the occupant was male.
4th C hydria from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
According to Aneliya Bozhkova, co-director of the excavation, cremation was very rare in the Necropolis of Mesambria and in the area, and so this may raise questions as to the ethnicity of the occupant of the tomb. The excavations continue.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tomb II at Vergina.... the mystery rumbles on

Professor Jonathan Musgrave's recent article in the International Journal of Medical Sciences on the occupants of tomb II at Vergina is sure to ruffle a few feathers. A while ago I attended a lecture by Professor Musgrave on this very subject, and only last week I was standing outside tomb II with my group, discussing his findings, so I was pleased to see the article at last, complete with wonderful illustrations of the ancient remains.

Since Manolis Andronikos' amazing discoveries in the Great Tumulus of Vergina in 1977 there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the identity of the occupants. Andonikos firmly believed that one was none other than Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and cited such evidence as a 'royal' diadem, a hunting scene depicting Philip and Alexander and other circumstantial evidence. The identity of the other occupant, a young woman, has been more problematic, not least because Philip had 7 or 8 wives (Macedonian kings practised polygamy).  If the tomb is a royal one, and if we accept that Vergina is actually ancient Aegeae, the resting ground of all Macedonian kings of the Argead line (except Alexander the Great - but that's another story) then the couple in the tomb must be either Philip II and one of his wives, or Philip III Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydike. Andronikos was convinced it was Philip II, and Musgrave's evidence seemed to support his view.

Tomb II - the male was in the main chamber, the female in the antechamber
Musgrave and other members of a British team examined the bones at the time of their discovery and seemed to confirm Andronikos' view of the male. The skeleton was of a male in his mid to late 40s - but this could be either of the two Philips. However, they noted that the skull appears to have a healed fracture on the right cheekbone and a marked asymmetry in the wall of the right maxillary sinus. We know that Philip II lost his right eye at the siege of Methone in 355-4 BC and this injury which would be consistent with the damage to the skeleton. It has to be said that another team also examined the remains and thought that this damage was caused by the warping during cremation.

However, other archaeologists consider that several aspects of the tomb and its very rich contents point to a period some years later, after Alexander's conquests of Asia and this would preclude the possibility of the male being Philip II. For example, the appearance of some salt cellars dated only in other contexts to between 320-280. They propose therefore that the occupants of the tomb should be Philip II's son Philip III Arrhidaios, and his wife Eurydice.

Professor Musgrave has now had a chance to re-examine the bones, and his findings are extremely important. He points out that the colour and fracture lines of the bones suggest they were cremated 'green' (with flesh still around them) rather than 'dry' (after the flesh had been decomposed by burial). We know that Philip II was cremated very soon after he was assassinated, and the funeral pyre has been excavated at the site, whereas Arrhidaios was murdered on the borders of Epirus and Macedonia in 317 BC and sources suggest his remains were subsequently exhumed and reburied between four and 17 months later at Vergina. Given that the the funeral pyre indicates that the bodies were cremated at Vergina, Arrhidaios could not have been exhumed, moved and then cremated 'green'.

Furthermore, the literary sources indicate that Arrhidaios was buried along with his wife Eurydice and her mother Kynna and this tomb contains remains of only two individuals. The female remains belong to a woman aged between 20 and 30 and Eurydice is thought to have been no more than 19 years old when she died.

So, the mystery of the occupants of Tomb II continues...... in another post I shall move on to the question of the identity of the female!
A tiny ivory portrait, believed to be of Philip II, from the tomb at Vergina

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Roman athlete from Apollonia, Albania

As you know, I’ve just returned from a few days in Albania, so I was intrigued to see new discoveries announced from the important site of Apollonia. My sister and I noticed a new sondage as we walked up to the acropolis, but is seems that the discoveries were not made there, but in the residential area in the west part of the town.

The excavations, which are being undertaken by joint French and Albanian teams, have unearthed an intact bust of an athlete dating from the 2nd C AD. The French have been involved with the site of Apollonia since 1924 when Leon Rey started his campaigns. He excavated there until the Italian conquest of Albania in 1939. On the fall of communism in 1991, the French returned and are now working under Jean-Luc Lamboley from Grenoble University. Lamboley hails the discovery as the most important in the last 50 years in Albania because of the quality and condition of the bust.

The bust is large, being 84cm high and 53cm wide, and was discovered upright in a drain in the west part of the town which was a residential area in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The archaeologists also discovered the foot of a bronze statue wearing a roman sandal in the same sewer.

Apollonia was a Greek colony, founded by settlers from Corinth and Corcrya (Corfu) in the 7th C BC. At that time it had a navigable river and large harbour and as well as trade it also exploited the bitumen which occurred naturally in the area. However, the river silted up and, once the harbour was lost and the plain unhealthy, the city gradually fell into disuse, gaining prominence again only for a short time as a bishopric.

For archaeologists, this is an advantage, the fact that no modern town was built on its ruins makes for excellent excavating conditions. If you visit the site you can see several sculptures and stele of very good quality on show in the nearby monastery. Other finds can be seen in Tirana, which is where the newly discovered bust will reside at present until there is a properly secure museum at the site.

I rather like the fact that the bust depicts an athlete. We know games took place at Apollonia, and the famous bouleterion was commissioned by an organiser of games. It's a pleasing fit, even if he is not exactly a handsome brute!

The team of French and Albanian archaeologists are trying to study how Apollonia evolved from a Greek colony to a Roman settlement. "This site spans a thousand years of history and we can study here how the classic Greek civilisation was transmitted and evolved into a Roman city” said Lamboley.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wall paintings discovered in Nabataean Jordan

As part of my preparation for my tour to ancient Macedonia this week I’ve been reading up on Greek painting so I was really interested to find that some very high quality wall paintings dating back around 2000 years have been revealed near to the world heritage site of Petra in Jordan.

The paintings, which were discovered some time ago, had been very difficult to see as they had been obscured by soot, smoke and other matter (including graffiti) over the centuries. Now, thanks to the expertise of conservation specialists from the Courtauld Institute in London their full glory has been revealed. The image below is courtesy of the Courtauld Institute and shows a 'before and after' of a putto playing a flute.

Unsurprisingly, not many paintings survive from ancient Greece, although we know that painting was an art even in the classical period and the tradition of illustrating key points in history such as battles goes back at least as far as the representation of the Battle of Marathon in the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) in Athens.

Most of the information on Greek painting comes from later, usually Roman, sources but Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports Socrates discussions with a painter, sculptor and cuirass maker. The craftsmen are listed in descending order of esteem – there was not a very high view of craftspeople generally in the classical world, but artists were viewed as higher than most, possibly because painting involved less physical labour.

Socrates points out that a good cuirass maker serves the physical demands of men, a good sculptor succeeds in representing man’s emotions by imitating bodily actions, but only the painter is capable of representing what seems to have ‘neither shape nor colour’  -  the essence of man.

It was the judgement of later authors (including Cicero, Diodorus and Quintilian) that painting came to perfection not before the 4th century BC and authors tell us many names and describe masterpieces. They also tell us that copies were made and that sometimes these copies were passed off as originals!

By the 2nd century BC, there were collections of paintings in the great Hellenistic centres of Pergamon, Alexandria and elsewhere but the paintings were all on panels and so they have perished. Paintings would also have hung in temples, and possibly other public buildings, so we should not consider that all ancient painting was of the nature of frescoes. Many of them would have been encaustic on panel, such as the mummy portraits from Fayuum and other places in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt.

However, it is true Macedonian tombs have preserved for us a whole variety of paintings, including the masterly scenes of Hades’ Rape of Persephone at the royal tombs in Vergina. Moreover, some Greek paintings were copied and appear preserved on the walls of houses in Pompeii and the surrounding area. Not all were straight painted copies – the famous Alexander mosaic is a mosaic version of a lost painting of Alexander the Great’s victory at the battle of Issus.

So, the survival of these examples from Petra is very important as it shows the spread and extent of Hellenistic art and techniques. Petra was a Nabataean town. The Nabataeans were great traders who were the middle men between the incense growers of south Arabia and the market for the product in the Mediterranean, which was extremely profitable. They built a kingdom on the profits from this trade which stretched from Jordan down into the Arabian peninsula, including the amazing site of Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, and they were at their height in the 1st centuries BC and AD (the suggested approximate date of the paintings) until conquest by the Romans. They absorbed artistic influences from all of their contacts, so it is not surprising that they should adorn their dwellings with wall paintings.

Just as with the Macedonian paintings, there is a great deal of naturalistic intricacy to the Jordanian paintings: flowers, birds and insects can be all identified. Grape vines, ivy and can be discerned. The paintings are even embellished with gold leaf.

The paintings are not at the main site of Petra, but at Siq al-Barid in Beidha, about 5km away and are located within an area where ritual dining is thought to have taken place. The discovery of their true beauty and high quality following this three year conservation programme is to be welcomed for adding to the corpus of ancient paintings and it is hoped that continued study of the paintings will help to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge of the transition from Greek to Roman paintings.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where to stay in Durres, Albania

I've just returned from a long weekend in Albania. I went with my sister Rosemary as she had never been to the country before and I wanted to show her what an amazing place it is. We had a really fabulous time, and I wanted to share with you a hotel recommendation if you are planning to visit Durres.
Durres is a very old city - it was founded by Greek colonists from Corcyra and Corinth as Epidamnus and a dispute over its relationship with its mother city was one of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. In Roman times it was known as Dyrrachiuim and amongst other things was a backdrop for Caesar and Pompey's struggles in the Civil War, with Pompey landing his troops there. It was the start of the Via Egnatia, the famous Roman road that led to Byzantium (Istanbul), and later Venetian Durazzo. So there is plenty to see there, and it is also a good base for day trips to other places of interest.
We stayed at the Aragosta hotel in Durres. The hotel is on a relatively quiet street, the Rruga Taulantia, and is ideally situated for walking into the town to see the Byzantine walls, late Roman Forum and Roman Amphitheatre, and of course the archaeological museum. Some parts of the town get really busy in high season, but this is a little out of the really crowded beach areas and situated so that you can sit on the terrace and enjoy the beautful sunset whilst overlooking the beach, which is not very wide but very well maintained and clean. As a guest at the hotel you can reserve an umbrella and sunbeds on the beach at no extra cost - and it gets busy onthe beach so if you are there in high season and you want to use the beach you must make sure you reserve a space.
Staff at the hotel speak English and the rooms are well-equipped and furnished to a very high standard. Breakfast can be eaten on the terrace overlooking the beach and is substantial (including bacon and eggs!) The restaurant is also excellent, and reasonably priced. For more information and to book, have a look at the website
I think that this is the only time I have been quoted a price online which had actually gone down when I came to pay. It really was very good value and I would highly recommend it as a base for visiting Durres and the surrounding areas.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The oldest house in Britain is brought to light

Archaeologists working at Star Carr near Scarborough in Yorkshire have uncovered the oldest house in Britain to date. The circular structure, 3.5 metres in diameter, dates back to between 9200 and 8500 BC and pre-dates other Stone Age buildings in Britain by up to a thousand years.

Starr Carr is one of Britain's most important prehistoric archaeological sites. In an astonishing season in 1950, archaeologists discovered twenty one head-dresses made of deer skulls and antlers and dating to the Stone Age. It is thought that they were used for hunting-related rituals or ceremonial dances. Precious beads fashioned from deer teeth, shale and amber have also been found on the site and these are often associated with ritual activity in this period.

This season has been equally fruitful. Archaeologists have brought to light the remains of a well-built wooden platform on the edge of a now long-vanished lake. They believe this may have been used as a location from which precious objects were thrown into the water as offerings to their ancestral spirits or deities.

The recent discovery of the remains of the house is challenging views of the level of sophistication achieved at this time in Britain. It was clearly a permanent structure rather than a temporary wigwam-style building and consisted of up to 18 upright posts, each around 20 centimetres in diameter.

Inside there was a living/sleeping area defined by a 20-30 centimetre thick layer of moss, reeds and other soft organic material placed in a shallow 2.5 metre diameter depression. The presence of burnt flints suggests that the building also had a small hearth.

So who was the occupant? Perhaps a hunter - excavations at the site reveal that the inhabitants were hunting and eating animals - including deer, elk, aurochs and smaller animals such as beaver, wild boar, badger, hare and pine marten. The discovery of a wooden paddle suggests that they may also have used boats.

Another suggestion is that it may have been the home of a shaman. Parallels from hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world suggest that whilst other members of the tribe would have less permanent structures, the shaman was provided with a more well-built home, presumably in order to safeguard the welfare of the whole community.

Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated to date, and therefore it is hoped that more structures will be unearthed in the future, increasing our knowledge of life in prehistoric Britain.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jade sculptures found at Roman town of Viminacium

Excavations at the Roman amphitheatre of Viminacium, east Serbia, have brought to light two remarkable rare jade figures amongst other finds.

Viminacium was the provincial capital of the Roman province of Moesia (now Serbia). The city, which dates back to the 1st C AD, lay on the Roman road the Via Militaris, and was clearly a site of major importance. The archeological site occupies a total of 450 hectares and includes temples, an amphitheatre, government buildings and Roman baths.
Its location on the Via Militaris gives a clue to its importance – it was a military camp of considerable size and troops may have been stationed here as early as the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). The Emperor Claudius (41-54) garrisoned Viminacium, along with other Moesian cities , for the Moesian legions. The first legion to be stationed there seems to have been the VII Claudia that came there in 52 AD from Dalmatia.
During the Dacian Wars Trajan made Viminacium his headquarters and the town became a colonia with minting privileges in 239 AD housing Legions IV and VII.
The Roman amphitheatre gives some idea of the size of the settlement, since it could house 12,000 people. The ongoing excavations are directed by Miomir Korać of the Viminacium Archaeological Park and it was he who made the announcement of the find of not one, but two, rare jade sculptures.
The first figure, 35 centimeters long, was not complete but was of interest in that it was made out of a single piece of jade. The second figure, found shortly afterwards, was also incomplete, but of excellent craftsmanship. Both figures are missing their heads and one is broken off at the torso. Korac speculates that they are of local production and hopes to find more evidence to support this claim.
The amphitheatre itself is in an excellent state of preservation with walls up to five metres high and other finds include a gilded eagle that seems to have been part of a chariot and massive iron door fittings.
The use of jade for sculptures at this time is quite unusual, in Europe it was used by Neolithic lake dwellers for axes and other tools, but is not well attested in later periods. The first source of European jade was discovered in 1885, near Jordansmuhl in Silesia, Poland. Until then, it was thought that the material for European Neolithic jades was imported from Asia.
Now research has shown that both forms of jade, jadite and nephrite, occur in Poland, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Prehistoric jade ceremonial weapons have been found in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Great Britain. More information on jade can be found at
There is anecdotal evidence of the use of jade in ancient Egypt, but this is unconfirmed though nephrite is also reported in the Eastern Desert. So, we eagerly await Professor Korac’s finding on the local working of jade in ancient Serbia, as this would open up an entirely new area for enthusiasts of this beautiful mineral.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Classical Age ‘Palace’ discovered in ancient Thrace.

Thrace is an area of the ancient world known, amongst other things, for being the birthplace of Spartacus who was famed for leading a rebellion against Rome in 73-71BC.  
However, the real flowering of Thracian culture was between the 5th and the 3rd century BC when the tribes came together to form a union under the Odrysians.
 The Odrysian kingdom in Thrace existed as a distinct political entity until 46AD when the Emperor Claudius replaced it with the Roman province of Thracia. The heyday of the kingdom was the 5th to 4th centuries until its annexation by Philip II of Macedon in 341/340BC.
Archaeologists have uncovered a residence which they consider to be the seat of the rulers of the Odrysian Kingdom at its height. The site is located on the Sredna Gora mountain, close to the town of Hissar in central Bulgaria.
It is thought that the initial construction of the ‘palace’ dates to the time of king Cotys I (384-359BC).  Though given the name of ‘palace’ since it is thought to be the residence of the king, the construction is actually a well-built fortress.
The photograph shows the substantial stone construction of the lower courses of the walls.
Its location near to the village of Starosel, the site of some of the largest tombs in Thrace, and also near to a sanctuary site, suggest that the area may be a ceremonial capital. The archaeological team have announced the fortress to be the palace of the Odrysian kings Amatokos II (359 BC - 351 BC) and Teres II (351 BC - 342 BC) who came into conflict with Philip II of Macedon and his expansionist policy.  
Two of the towers of the citadel, which stand to circa 2metres high, have so far been excavated.  The excavation is ongoing and more information will be forthcoming.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Caesar and Pompey in Albania

I've recently returned from taking a group on a cultural heritage tour of Albania, and it was good to see that there have been lots of positive changes since the last tour. The most important change is the upgrading of several main roads, and in particular the beautiful coast road from Saranda to Vlore. 

Our group was quite small, but some of them had a particular interest in the Roman Civil War, so I made sure to point out as many of the pertinent places as possible. There are quite a few - Caesar and Pompey played cat and mouse up and down the coastal plain of Albania before heading East to meet up at Pharsala in Thessaly.

The stretch of coast where Caesar landed his troops is today a long, white almost deserted beach between Saranda and Vlore, and I suppose pretty it looked much as it would have done two thousand years ago - apart from the fact that Caesar landed in the midst of winter. You can imagine the ships coming in to the beach with the waves lashing the sterns and the wind howling into the ears of the troops as they stood on deck. Nor was there respite when they reached dry land - they then had to face a climb of awe-inspiring steepness up into the hills and across the quarry-pitted Karaburuni peninsula to reach the relatively safe harbour of Orikum. You can still see the path the estimated 30,000 troops took, and the narrowness of the track makes you wonder how many hours it took for the whole army to wind its way over the heights of LLogara. 
 (You can just make out the horizontal track in this photograph)

Having left a garrison at Orikum, and ships in the harbour, Caesar headed north to meet up with Marc Antony who had landed at Shengjin, the harbour of ancient Lissus. They would join up, or else they would make a pincer movement on Pompey's forces, which were stationed near Dyrrachion (Greek Epidamnus), where Pompey taken his troops on hearing that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. Pompey headed back to try and stop the two forces joining up, but (as often happens in ancient warfare) bypassed the two armies and was then forced to make camp in Asparagium (Rroghozina) in order to regroup and re-assess. However, he did receive the good news that his son Pompey Junius had taken Orikum and destroyed 30 of Caesar's ships.  There was no turning back for Caesar.

Caesar, inland from Dyrrachion, ordered his troops to build earthworks, hoping to immobilise Pompey, but Pompey realised that he could not allow himself to be trapped and so, in a bold move, broke through the newly erected earthworks and fortifications and gave battle somewhere near Petra (Kavaje?). It was a hard fought engagement, but with no definite conclusion, and Caesar withdrew his men, leaving 690 of them dead on the field of battle. He led his troops south east and into Macedonia, passing Apollonia, a town famed for its School of Rhetoric, which was staunchly pro-Caesar.

Pompey, buoyed by Caesar's haste to get away, calmly took the Via Egnatia, the famous road leading from Dyrrachion all the way to Byzantium, and also crossed the mountains into Macedonia, thence down into Thessaly to meet his fate. Albania's role in the Civil War was over.

There is a post-script to the story, however. Later, when Caesar had defeated not only Pompey but Marc Antony too, he sent his heir Octavian away from Rome, to toughen up a bit and to gain some experience abroad. He sent him to Apollonia, and it was in that city that the young Octavian heard of the assassination of Julius Caesar and returned to Rome to take up his destiny.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gladiators in the North of England

Knowledge of the Roman period in Britain is growing all the time, thanks to new excavations and the application of scientific techniques. Human remains from the site at Driffield Terrace in York have been the subject of speculation for some time: were the 80 plus skeletons of young men exhumed over the last decade a group of aristocrats punished for their part in a revolt against the Roman Emperor Caracalla? That was one theory, but it seems that forensic science has revealed that the truth is something quite different – it was a graveyard for gladiators.

The group of well-built young men had been decapitated, leading to bizarre theories about pagan rites, or punishment for outsiders such as Christians. They also had evidence of hammer blows to the head, which became of greater interest when a group of burials of gladiators with the same type of blows, and also decapitation, were discovered in Ephesus, Turkey, three years ago.

The result of forensic work on the skeletons, recently announced, show a variety of evidence which would support the view that the men were gladiators. Many of the 1,800-year-old remains indicate much stronger muscles in the right arm, a condition to be expected in men who had been subjected to years of training. Analysis of the tooth enamel showed that the men came from a wide range of Roman provinces, including North Africa, also a normal feature of gladiator recruitment.

Imagine coming from North Africa to fight in York! York was a provincial capital and major military base for the Romans, and is famous for the fact that the Emperor Constantine took the purple there is AD306. It seems that the town was a flourishing place with a social life which included watching man pitted against beast in the amphitheatre. And it seems that the residents ate well too, if the funeral feasts are anything to go by. Literary sources tell us that gladiators were the ancient equivalent of premier footballers, with huge followings and lavish lifestyles for those who survived long enough. The funeral feasts for these Northern ‘stars’ included beef, pork and horsemeat and they were provided with a variety of grave goods for the afterlife.

Decapitation was a common way to meet one’s death at the end of a contest (witness also the skeletons excavated in the amphitheatre in Durres, Albania) and the coup-de-grace was often delivered by a hammer to the head. But it was the evidence of a bite from a large animal that really sealed the interpretation – probably from a lion, tiger or bear. There were also a broad range of other healed and unhealed injuries associated with violence found on the skeletons. As Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, put it: "It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a lion or tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2,000 years ago." So, gladiators it is then……

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Life on the frontier in the Roman Empire

Publication of the Millennium excavations in the grounds of Carlisle castle has shed new light on what life must have been like for a Roman soldier posted to Britannia, at the edge of the empire.

The report details the 80,000 artefacts discovered in the five trenches on the Castle Green and Eastern Way. One of the most important aspects of the excavations is that, because of the waterlogged soil, a great deal of wood was preserved, including 2,000 large pieces of timber and there were also significant leather remains including shoes and tents. Other finds included pottery, coins, animal bone, spearheads and arrowheads, and jewellery.

The timber, wooden posts and leather tent fragments are significant because the survival of wooden structures from this period is uncommon, not only Britain but beyond, and the amount and condition of the material has added significantly to knowledge of the construction and appearance of Roman military buildings in the first and second centuries AD.  In addition, articulated armour was also found, a first for a British Roman site. 

The Roman fort is thought to have been built in72 or 73AD and housed around 500 soldiers. The good condition of the wood fragments enabled archaeologists to work out how the smaller pieces were used in building construction and that the internal walls of the fort could be changed to suit the differing needs of the soldiers housed within it. 

The finds have helped build up a picture of the everyday life of the soldiers. They hunted deer for food, and preferred mutton to lamb (as attested by the age of the sheep bones). They spent some of their spare time playing a Roman version of draughts, but also devoted some of their time to their appearance: finds include razor blades, combs and fragments of mirrors. A touch of reality was provided by the fact that one of the combs still had a louse attached. 

July 2010 will see the opening of a new Roman gallery at Tullie House in Carlisle, where some of the finds will be on display, and which will place Carlisle in its broader Roman context. In fact, the city was an important Roman town with civitas status, and the finds from this excavation, including this beautiful piece from a horse harness, have helped to illustrate this and throw light on the lives of the soldiers who served there.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A 'mermaid' sanctuary in the UAE.. evidence of neolithic fishing rituals?

This week saw the publication of some amazing news from the Arabian pensinsula. French archaeologists have recently discovered the oldest sanctuary in Arabia near the Strait of Hormuz and evidence of ritual practice involving the marine mammal often believed to be the source of the legend of the mermaid.
The latest edition of Antiquity reveals the results of the French Archaeological Mission’s expedition to the UAE, namely a site on the island of Akab, the oldest sanctuary in Arabia, as well as the oldest known ceremonial site dedicated to a very particular marine mammal, the dugong.
The island of Akab is located 50km north of Dubai in the large lagoon of Umm Al Quwain and the ancient sanctuary provides us with the first evidence of the rituals practised by the prehistoric coastal societies of the Gulf.  Akab was a fishermen’s village between 4700 and 4100BC. The locals lived in circular dwellings and fished with nets and lines using hooks made from the shell of the pearl oyster. The fishermen exploited the resources of the lagoon and the nearby mangrove but they also fished tuna, which meant venturing out into the open sea.
However, perhaps the most interesting news relates to a mound of bones discovered in the 1990s. Test excavations then interpreted the mound as a sea cow butchering site. The excavation was resumed between 2006 and 2009 by a new team of prehistorians and faunal experts and their work has shown that far from being an unorganized mound, but a complex structure of intentional form.
Carbon dating on a dugong bone has attributed it to the second half of the fourth millennium (3500-3200 BC). The structure consists of an ovoid platform extending to nearly 10 square metres and contains the remains of at least 40 dugongs.

There appear to be a full range of dugongs represented, from calf to mature animal, yet no complete animal has been found. That there was an intentional selection is clear from the fact that certain anatomical parts, such as the ribs, vertebrae or limbs, are under-represented. Furthermore, evidence shows that the bones were deposited shortly after the animal was killed.
In addition to anatomical remains, 1,862 small finds were also present in the structure, including beads and tools, and some remains of other animals namely gazelle, sheep and goat.
That this is a ritual site is clear – the dugong skulls are all oriented eastwards (as are human skulls in Neolithic necropolises in other sites in UAE). There are also echoes of the site in the green turtle necropolis at Ra’s al-Hamra in Oman, which is contemporary with the Akab monument.
This dugong construction is unique in the Middle-East in its scale, though other dugong bones have been found Al Markh, a fourth-millennium settlement site in Bahrain and the Bronze Age the sites of Umm An Nar, Tell Abraq, Shimal and Ra's Ghanadha in the UAE. But it has no parallel in the Neolithic in other parts of the world. The Australian coast of the Torres Strait has some comparable ceremonial sites, but they date to the 14th C AD at the earliest.
Animal lovers will be pleased to note that the dugong is now protected by the UAE, having previously been hunted for its flesh, oil and hide.

Monday, March 29, 2010

New light on the neolithic era in the Euphrates valley

I have long been championing the cause of rethinking the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in Greece and elsewhere, but it seems more and more to me that we should take a long look, and perhaps reappraise, exactly what was happening in the late Neolithic era in the Mediterranean and fertile crescent.

In Deir Ezzor, 432kms northeast of Damascus in Syria, a village named Tal Bokrous shows a level of sophistication which exemplifies why this period is thought of as a time of rapid development in human technology.
This site is the only one of the Middle Euphrates region which belongs to this particular phase beginning about 9500BC, considered the latest phase of the Stone Age.

The village has clear architectural features, and numbers an astonishing 188 houses (to date) along two sides of an open area within the urban setting. Each house, according to archaeologist Yarub al-Abdullah, includes three rooms made of sun-dried brick, painted with mud and plaster on both the wall and floor surfaces.
There are even traces of colourful wall-paintings representing fowl. The population of the village apparently depended on agriculture and livestock and both plaster louvers (part of feeding stalls?) and the remains of charred plants have been discovered.
Studies showed that barley grew naturally in the area, and then the locals developed agriculture with the cultivation of grain and lentils. They also worked such raw materials as they had to make various artefacts, including stone needles, drills, sculptures and utensils. The inhabitants also shaped and baked mud to make sculptures of women (two have been found) and a man's head.
The findings from the site have amplified our view of the agricultural societies in the Middle Euphrates and enriched our understanding of how people lived at this time. Further excavations at the site are eagerly anticipated!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping Warm in the Ice Age - Oldest Wall found in Greece!

As my friends know, I love old walls. So I was very excited to hear the announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture on Monday 22nd March that a 23,000 year old wall had been discovered in Thessaly.

Paleoanthropologist Dr. N. Kiparissi has been excavating in the cave of Theopetra near Kalambaka for the past 25 years (another life’s work – see my blog 2 March) and amongst other discoveries revealed the remains of a wall (below) which had apparently been built to partially block the entrance to the cave.

The wall was built to restrict the entrance to the cave by two-thirds, and this suggests that its purpose was to protect the inhabitants from the cold, given that the wall’s age matches the coldest period of the most recent ice age. The wall was dated by optical luminescence, a method which determines how long ago mineral grains were last exposed to daylight, and the result means that this is the oldest man made wall in Greece and probably one of the oldest in the world.

The cave can be found near Kalambaka, the town usually more associated with the monasteries of Meteora in Thessaly, Greece.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An ancient mystery. Who buried these coins of Alexander the Great?

Chance archaeological finds are often intriguing in that because they lack background information or context, they necessarily lead to a great deal of speculation. The collection of coins recently found by a Syrian man has really set my imagination alight.

This gentleman was preparing his land in order to build on it when he discovered a bronze box. Just imagine how that must have felt, to find a metal box, green with age, in the soil. Images of treasure must have entered his head, of treasure chests brimming with gold jewellery and coins. On opening the box, even if he did not see the glint of gold, he was surely not disappointed, for it contained around 250 silver coins minted during the reigns of two famous figures of ancient history : Alexander III, also known as ‘the Great’ and a King Philip of Macedon.

The man, who has not been named, took the box to the authorities and they are now with the Aleppo Department of Archaeology and Museums. Presumably this honest individual's identity is being withheld to deter illegal digs on his land, which is near to Najm Castle in the Manbej area of Northern Syria.
The box contained two groups of silver coins: 137 tetradrachma (four drachma) and 115 drachma coins. Of the tetradrachmae, 34 of these coins bear the inscription ‘Basileus Alexandros’ (King Alexander), while 81 coins bear the inscription ‘Alexander’ and 22 ‘King Phillip’.
When Alexander succeeded Philip II to the throne of Macedon, he initially continued to mint the gold and silver coins of his father. Soon, however, the need for a silver coinage that could be widely used in Greece caused him to begin a new coinage on the Athenian weight-standard. His new silver coins, with the head of Herakles on the obverse and a seated figure of Zeus on the reverse, went on to become one of the staple coinages of the Greek world. It is these coins that make up the bulk of this find.
The head of Heracles, wearing his distinctive lion skin cap, is often thought to be actually a portrait of Alexander himself. Certainly the figure represented bears similarities with how Alexander came to be portrayed, and we know that he was also sometimes shown with a Heracles helmet (for example, on the Alexander sarcophagus in Istanbul). He was also believed to be descended from the hero on his father’s side. The reverse depicts Zeus sitting on a throne with an eagle on his outstretched right arm.
On the death of Alexander in 323BC, his half brother Philip III Arrhidaeus succeeded him and the coins bearing the name King Philip belong to his reign. Philip III died in 317BC, so since there are no coins of later monarchs, it may be that the ‘treasure’ was buried sometime during this very short time span.
So, what caused the owner to part with his considerable treasure? The period of the Successors or Diadochi of Alexander were yeas of turmoil and warfare, and bands of mercenaries and troops criss-crossed the former empire of Alexander to fight in the battles of those contesting the thrones of the Hellenistic kingdoms. In periods of great unrest, it was common to bury your treasure to safeguard it. The fact that many of these hoards are recovered two millennia later shows just how perilous these periods were. We will most likely never know the identity of the owner of the coins, and what kind of life they led, or what circumstances forced them to bury their treasure, but since I read about the coins this morning my mind has been creating a variety of scenarios.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Further re-evaluation of ‘the Dark Age’ in Greece, this time from Crete

Sometimes a site becomes a ‘life’s work’ for an archaeologist. Such has been the case for Nicholas Stampolidis, who has been excavating the necropolis of Orthi Petra at Eleutherna on Crete for more than 25 years. But whilst some archaeologists dig for years and never greatly add to the corpus of knowledge, this excavation has been immensely rewarding for Professor Stampolidis, and his findings have certainly added to the scholarly debate around the so-called ‘Dark Age’ of Greece.

Within a single tomb, between 1992 and 1996, Professor Stampolidis and his team discovered a massive assemblage of 141 cremated individuals, all but two of whom were aristocratic men who may have met their death in battle. Tomb A1K1 is an elaborate rock-cut tomb containing fantastic burial goods dating from the ninth to the seventh century B.C., including bronze vessels, gold and silver jewellery, and military trappings.

However, it is the discoveries made since 2007 that are really exciting scholars: three jar burials containing the remains of more than 10 related female individuals and a monumental funerary building where a female of high status was buried with three others.

The four females ranged in age from about seven to seventy and were found in an eighth-century B.C. monumental funerary building. The floor of the building was stewn with thin strips of gold from the burial garments, and the women were surrounded by bronze vessels, figurines, and jewellery of gold, silver, glass, ivory, and semiprecious stones from Asia Minor, the Near East, and North Africa.

Other artefacts from the tomb: a stone ‘altar’, ritual bronze tools, and a glass phial for libations have led to the speculation that these women may have been priestesses or females from a family involved with the ritual welfare of the community. Clearly, women played an important role in the religious life of Eleutherna.

Anagnostis Agelarakis is a forensic anthropologist from is Adelphi University. She has discovered that all four women shared a genetic dental trait. Interestingly, the women buried in the three pithoi (large jars) also had this trait, and further research is expected to establish that they were also related.

Agelarakis has discovered a matrilineage of two centuries – an unprecedented find. The imported artefacts, such as the Mesopotaian phial, suggest that the women were of high social standing. The continuity of the wealthy grave goods, imported from afar, combined with the sophistication of many of the burials, certainly does not fit with past preconceptions of the ‘Dark Age’.

So, who did these priestesses serve? Mount Ida, home of the sacred cave of Zeus, can be seen from t
he site of Eleutherna. There is intriguing, but at present there is no evidence to point to a particular deity, but perhaps further work from the indefatigable Professor Stampolidis will uncover some.

Further information can be found on the website of the Archaeological Institute of America: Archaeology.

Friday, February 12, 2010

New evidence for religious continuity through ‘Dark Age’ Greece

Last night I attended a lecture at The British Museum given by Professor Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier on his continuing excavations at Kalapodi in Phokis, Greece.

Professor Niemeier’s excavations have secured the recognition of the Kalapodi as the site of one of the most famous sanctuaries of ancient Greece, that of Apollo at Abai. Numerous ancient sources attest to the importance of the oracle and sanctuary and talk of the offerings made to the god there, clearly putting the site on the same level as Delphi or Olympia, but until Niemeier’s excavations, the location and of the site and remained a mystery to scholars, and Abai seemed to be reduced to a footnote in ancient history.
Now, however, the excavations have revealed not only the huge wealth of the sanctuary, but also a huge amount of new evidence for ritual practice at sanctuaries and a clear continuity of cult from Mycenaean through the Dark Age. The question of religious continuity has been a subject of debate amongst scholars for many years. Some held that in around 1200 BC when the Mycenaean civilization ended, a period of discontinuity, decrease in population, and poverty followed, known as the Dark Ages. These scholars presumed a discontinuity in religion and cult, and believed that it was not until the second half of the 8th century BC when a sudden economic and cultural advance occurred, forming the basis of Classical Greece, that factors allowed for the emergence of ‘the Greek sanctuary’.

Excavations over the last few decades have begun to demonstrate more continuity than was previously thought, and now findings from the sanctuary of Apollo at Abai at Kalapodi show, for the first time on the Greek mainland, clear evidence of continuous cult activity from at least the Mycenaean Age, through the 'Dark Age', to the Archaic period and beyond - even to the Roman temple built by Hadrian (see below). 
Whilst many truly exciting finds have been made, including votive trophies of weaponry and even chariot wheels, and painted pottery with images of battle and loot, the most interesting aspect of the excavation for me is the way continuity of worship and cult activity was ensured, even through disruption in the use of the temple: be it through the erection of a new building, or destruction by enemy or earthquake. Temporary ritual areas seem to have always existed in between building phases, ensuring that rituals could still be carried out and perhaps even allowing for consultation of the oracle wihout interuption. The meticulous excavation also shows how previous temple buildings were ritually ‘buried’, preserving a great number of votives and other artefacts associated with cult. Perhaps the most astonishing preservation is a unique wall-painting of the 7th century BC with the representation of a battle scene between hoplites. This is a significant find for the history of Greek painting and also lends weight to the theory that many vase painters were influenced by wall paintings.
The wealth of evidence from the site is going to add to current knowledge in many different subject areas, and for this Professor Niemeier is to be lauded. I am looking forward to hearing more, and also to visiting the site!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An 'early Muslim settlement' discovered in Saudi Arabia

A fascinating settlement, believed to date to the 7th century CE, has been discovered in Damman, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Dr. Ali I. Al-Ghabban, Deputy Secretary-General for Antiquities and Museums, made the announcement on Monday and was confident in the dating of the site due to the ceramics and other artefacts unearthed so far.

The site is in the Al-Raaka district and within 1km of the Arabian Gulf, but it is not evidence for a fishing industry that is provoking interest, but rather evidence for the the processing of dates.

Although the existence of the site has been known for some time, actual excavation commenced only three months ago and is taking place in cooperation with Saudi Aramco which holds title to the land and which hopes to build a contractor training centre on the site. The excavation team, however, is solely Saudi.

The settlement seems to have been well planned, with about 20 separate 'houses' discovered to date, all of four to five rooms. A well is also located with each cluster of buildings, with 5 being discovered so far. The exciting aspect of the construction of the buildings is that each has a special room which Al-Ghabban considers to be for conserving dates. The floors of these rooms are in the form of furrows and it is proposed that dates were stored thereon and juice collected through the furrows. Whether this hypothesis is supported by known practice in ancient or modern date processing was not mentioned by Al-Ghabban.

Arttefacts recovered from the site so far include clay utensils, pottery with inscriptions, seashells, iron bars and, bizarrely 'a pair of scissors'. Al-Ghabban says that the settlement, which is not mentioned in any literature, ancient or modern, is a very early Muslim village. He does not cite his evidence for this, but perhaps the inscribed pottery gives a clue. This would be a very early Muslim settlement indeed (the Islamic calendar starts in the equivalent of 622 CE) so it will be extremely interesting to hear more of the evidence for this proposition as the excavation continues. In the meantime, the image of the furrowed floor provides a fascinating glimpse into an early highly developed agriculture processing system.